Anthony Saville reflects on the first generation lapsed

It is an unwritten axiom of contemporary social commentary that it is the agnostics who are the nice guys, tolerant, broad-minded, generous and easy-going, in marked contrast to the Christian believers, who are at best hypocrites, and at worst the sons of fascists and bigots.

One’s instinctive reaction is to defend one’s fellow believers against this simplistic parody, but let us instead suppose that these (liberal) agnostics really are the good guys. How has this come about?

The first thing to note is that by ‘agnostic’ is meant quite a specific group of deliberate non-believers, deliberate in that they were brought up as Christians, and so have had something specific to reject. The ‘never-knew, never-cared’ are not included here.

‘My parents were Christian fundamentalists,’ ‘my mother went to Mass every week;’ a whole world of faith and loss of faith is conjured up in such simple, emblematic phrases. We are talking about a group I have always thought of as ‘the first generation lapsed’.

Thinking in wild generalizations, I truly do believe such people are the real nice guys. Imbued with the Christian virtues and moral life, they possess a complacency and self-esteem that makes them genuinely easier, more relaxed and tolerant than those poor sinners who still believe.

And so they want to pass on the same, self-assured, contented generosity to their children. Only to discover (and this is one of the great sadnesses of modern secular liberalism) that they cannot. A quick baptism and a church school does not work. It ought to, but it does not.

I suspect this has much to do with the comfortable relaxation about sin, the slight smugness that comes even from smiling complacency, but it is still a real sadness.

The intentions, the hopes, the plans, all suggest that this is how modern parents should best bring up their children. But it does not work. The second generation lapsed never fulfil the hopes of their parents, still less of their grandparents.

How to become a nice guy? It’s your parents what did it for you. You can only do it for your children – by going back to church, for real.

Anthony Saville